It seems remarkable that of Canada’s 28 prime ministers, not a single one was ever the premier of a province or territory.
Any number certainly had the qualifications required for the job. Alberta’s Peter Lougheed, Saskatchewan’s Allan Blakeney, Bill Davis from Ontario, Quebec’s Jean Charest, and Frank McKenna from New Brunswick come to mind.
We might add that no premier of B.C., Canada’s third-largest province, has ever been elected prime minister, or as best I can determine, even run for that office.
Almost without exception in the modern era, prime ministers began their careers as MPs. Yet the position of premier is in many respects far better training for the job.
Premiers have executive responsibilities greatly exceeding those of MPs, or even federal cabinet ministers. They would seem ideally suited.
It’s noteworthy that in the U.S., quite a few state governors — the rough equivalent of a Canadian premier — have ascended to the presidency. Since the war, they include George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter.
So why has no premier made the jump to heading a national government? The question takes on additional significance if we consider the leading contenders for that job when the next federal election is held.
Of the major party leaders, Justin Trudeau, Erin O’Toole and Jagmeet Singh, none exhibits the sense of personal authority or broad grasp of issues that the appointment calls for.
Trudeau was elected Liberal leader largely on the strength of his youthfulness and family name. His previous parliamentary career was undistinguished at best.
Erin O’Toole, the Conservative leader, had the merest experience of executive office, having been minister of veteran affairs for only a few months before the Harper administration was defeated. Why the Tories settled on this utterly uninspiring placeholder is one of nature’s mysteries.
You could say the same about Jagmeet Singh, and he didn’t even have a seat in parliament when he was elected NDP leader.
Yet one of these three men will be Canada’s next prime minister.
It might be thought that the requirement for bilingualism could be an obstacle. Yet English-speaking politicians have mustered enough French during the run-up to election campaigns to manage their way through.
A more credible explanation may be that premiers, as the heads of their governments, attract far more criticism than their junior colleagues.
B.C.’s Mike Harcourt, a genuinely decent man, took the fall for the “Bingogate” scandal, in which money raised by a charity was funnelled into party coffers.
A special prosecutor subsequently determined that Harcourt wasn’t responsible, but someone had to take the blame, and the buck stopped with him.
There is another consideration here, too. Successful politicians, both federal and provincial, often cling to office well past the time when they should have quit.
Brian Mulroney did so, as indeed did Chrétien. Allan Blakeney made this mistake, likewise Ontario’s Kathleen Wynne and arguably Gordon Campbell.
In short, by the time provincial premiers step aside, any opportunity for advancement may already have passed them by.
That time hasn’t come yet for the country’s most popular premier, John Horgan. But if he has ambitions to walk across the national stage, it’s something he might want to consider.